Four years ago, in Citizens United v FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for corporations and unions to make unlimited independent expenditures in political campaigns. In the wake of that decision, we’ve seen an arms race among the nation’s wealthiest donors, each vying to outspend the next in order to exert the greatest possible influence over our elections and lawmakers.
But if Citizens United started the arms race of money in politics, the Supreme Court’s decision last week in McCutcheon v. FEC has only escalated it. And we are about to see money in politics go nuclear.
In its decision in McCutcheon, the Court further dismantled what remains of our country’s campaign finance system by eliminating aggregate caps to federal candidates, parties and certain political committees, opening new channels for the wealthiest donors to funnel even more money into our political systems. The increase in access for the wealthiest will come at the expense of average Americans, who don’t have the same means to purchase such political “free speech.”
In equating money so completely with speech, the Supreme Court has sent a clear message: you have a First Amendment right to speak, but not necessarily to be heard.
Since the Court made clear that money is a form of speech, the primary question up for consideration in McCutcheon was whether or not the Court could restrict that speech, in the form of aggregate caps on campaign contributions, in order to prevent corruption.
It is on the issue of corruption that the Court exhibits a complete lack of understanding for how money actually moves through the political system. Roberts’ majority opinion defines corruption narrowly as a quid pro quo in which a donor makes a campaign contribution in return for a particular favor – essentially bribery.
But corruption can run through a system in ways that are much more subtle. The nation’s wealthiest donors have found ways to buy access to all areas of the political arena; major donors receive special access to the candidates they help elect, and their lobbyists spend millions to influence and even write legislation once the official takes office.
It’s this type of access and special consideration that can result in lawmakers prioritizing the will of the wealthiest few over the interests of the general public. It may not be an explicit quid prop quo, but excessive spending in our political system is equally corrosive to our democracy.
Californians are all too familiar with the corruption that comes with excessive money in politics. Just this year, three separate state senators have been indicted or convicted for egregious ethical violations and illegal activities. Yet in the wake of these scandals, the focus in the state legislature, and from the mainstream media, has been on quick legislative solutions to the ethics problem. Far too little time has been spent thinking about the underlying root cause of these ethics violations – a broken campaign finance system and the onslaught of money in politics – and the kinds of systemic changes needed to remedy the situation.
So where does the McCutcheon decision leave those of us in the reform community, those groups fighting in the trenches to limit the corruptive influence of money in our political systems? What weapons are left in our arsenal as the Supreme Court continues to tie our hands behind our backs?
The clearest answer, although also the most difficult to implement, would be a constitutional amendment authorizing Congress and the states to limit campaign spending. But that may be a long-term solution for a problem that will continue to wreak havoc on our political system in the meantime.
In the short term, legislative solutions like improved campaign finance disclosure laws or a public financing system could help to level the playing field among donors and reduce the corruptive influence of money in politics.
But here lies another problem: the very people in position to change our campaign finance system – our legislators – are those currently benefiting from the status quo. Although elected officials will tell you how much they hate fundraising full-time, we have seen few lawmakers with the political will to step forward and advocate for a real overhaul of our campaign finance system.
If all this seems like a dire outlook, in some ways it is. It’s also the perspective of a campaign finance reformer still recovering after last week’s ambush.
Journalist David Simon recently commented that “if democracy is going to work, the government in some sense is you and your neighbors.” By that he meant that, at its core, government should be about the small conversations held among citizens and elected officials, working through issues and figuring out how to make government best serve the needs of the people.
The influx of money into our political system has all but drowned out these quiet conversations. As Simon also observed, however, if we have reached a point where government is no longer about you and your neighbors, “then that’s the fight to have and it can’t be had by walking away.”
If there’s a bright side to all of this, it is that maybe — just maybe — in the battle against the corruptive influence of money in politics, we have reached a tipping point.
Sarah Swanbeck is the Policy and Legislative Affairs Advocate for California Common Cause